Jane Pittman is born into slavery on a plantation somewhere in Louisiana. Jane is called "Ticey" during her days as a slave and has no parents; her mother died as a result of a beating when Jane was a child, and Jane did not know her father. Until she is around nine, Jane works in the Big House caring for the white children. One day toward the end of the war, some fleeing confederate soldiers arrive, followed soon after by some union soldiers. While being served water by Jane, one Union soldier named Corporal Brown tells Jane that she will soon be free and can then visit him in Ohio. He tells her to change her name and offers her that of his daughter, Jane Brown. After the soldiers leave, Jane refuses to answer when her mistress calls her "Ticey." The mistress later beats Jane until she bleeds, but Jane insists that her name is now Jane Brown. Because of her obstinacy, Jane is sent to work in the fields.
On the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jane's master frees them all. On the same day, Jane leaves the plantation with a group of ex-slaves. They have no idea where they are going, but a woman named Big Laura leads the way. Jane wants to go to Ohio to find Corporal Brown. The first morning away, a group of "Patrollers," local white trash who used to hunt slaves, comes upon them and kills everyone but Jane and a very young boy Ned, whom they did not find. Jane and Ned then continue on their own, still headed for Ohio. They meet many characters on their trip, all of whom tell Jane that Ohio is too far and that she should go back to her plantation. Jane's obstinacy persists for a few weeks until she and Ned are completely exhausted from walking. Finally they catch a ride with a poor white man named Job who lets them sleep at his house and takes them the next day to a plantation run by Mr. Bone. Mr. Bone offers Jane a job, but only pays her the reduced rate of six dollars a month (minus fifty cents for Ned's schooling) because sh...
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...but one night he goes to her house and asks her to marry him anyhow. After she tells him that he is not thinking straight, he returns home and commits suicide. Tee Bob's stepfather intervenes after the suicide so that Mary Agnes is not imprisoned or killed in revenge for Tee Bob's death. In a conversation with Jane, he describes that they all killed Tee Bob because of their adherence to racial regulations beyond which Tee Bob could see.
In the final chapter of the book, Jane describes a boy named Jimmy Aaron, whom the whole plantation hopes will become the "one" who will save them all. Eventually, Jimmy gets involved in the civil rights movement. After several years away from the plantation, he returns home and plans an act of civil disobedience followed by a protest at the courthouse. First a young girl is arrested for drinking from a white water fountain. On the day that they all are to march to the courthouse in protest, however, Jimmy is shot dead. The crowd who was planning to march had already gathered when they hear the news. With the assistance of one young black man, Jane bravely encourages the people to march and takes the lead even though Jimmy is already dead
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